One last gasp of winter amid spring's progress

Over the last week, we've seen what feels like the last gasp of winter.  Two storms have come through, the first dropping about an inch and a half of rain (a lot for April; our long-term average for the entire month is just 1.86") and a couple more are expected this and next week. We've had several other days with significant cloud cover, and two nights where we got down around freezing, though we think we escaped any damage to the new growth.  At the same time, the days are lengthening and the sun is warm, the vines have all come out of dormancy, and we're getting the cover crop turned under where the animals weren't able to do it for us. It's a point in time where the view in any given vineyard block changes daily.  A few photos will give you a sense.  First, one taken on Friday 4/7, during our rainy day, with the cover crop and vines a mix of winter green/brown and summer gold/green:

Misty April 2017

In the areas where the animals last grazed in February (or earlier) the grasses are knee-high and starting to turn gold. This view, with high grass and new growth, is going to be short-lived, as we need to bring the cover crop under control for a variety of reasons.  The winter's heavy rain and its associated risk of erosion are largely in the rear-view mirror. With our always-dry summer on its way, we want to eliminate the vines' competition for the soil's available water. Returning the cover crop to the soil renews the earth's fertility and provides nutrients for the vines to draw on the rest of the year. Finally, it's important to knock down the cover crop to allow the cooler air at the surface to drain downhill rather than having it pool around the vines and cause frost damage. From the head-trained, dry-farmed "Scruffy Hill" block yesterday:

Scruffy Hill April 2017 2

Within a few weeks, all this growth will be turned under and decomposing in the topsoil, while the vines begin their trek toward harvest.  Last April 27th, I spent a morning taking photos on Scruffy Hill.  The difference from the photo above is dramatic, but not likely much different from what you'll see in two weeks:

Scruffy long view

The April rainfall pushed us over 40" and made this winter our second-rainiest ever.  We still have a chance to catch 2004-5, which at 42.85" is our wettest since we installed our weather station in 1996:

Rainfall by winter as of 2017

And yes, if you were wondering, the 2017 vintage is underway. The Grenache vines on Scruffy Hill already have tiny flower clusters forming:

Flower clusters April 2017

I'm sure we'll be sharing many photos in coming weeks and months of the new growth and the 2017 growing season. This is where it all begins.


January set the table for a wet winter. February brought us home.

At the end of January, I wrote a blog announcing that January 2017 had become our wettest month ever.  But at that time, we were only at 23.88" for the rain year (July-June), which while better than in recent years was still below our 20-year average, albeit with nearly half the rainy season still to come. I concluded that while we were very happy with what we'd received so far, "we've got a long way to go to climb out of the hole the last five years of drought has put us in".

February continued the winter's remarkable attack on our long-term drought, adding another 12.56" of rain to the tally, roughly 250% of what we'd get in an average February. By month:

Winter Rainfall 2016-17 March

How rare are back-to-back 10+ inch rain months?  Since our weather station went in during the summer of 1996, this is the first time.  In fact, we've only once before had two 10+ inch months in a single rain season: December of 2010 and March of 2011.  Otherwise, the closest we've come to these back-to-back wet months was a 13.5" month in December of 2004 followed by a 7.5" month in January of 2005, en route to our wettest-ever year at 42.85".  At 38.41" winter-to-date, we're not far from that now:

Winter Rainfall 1996-2017

You can see the impact of the 30" inches we've received (!) in 2017 in ways both more and less obvious. The vineyard is wet, with springs welling out of many of our hillsides. Las Tablas Creek is running cheerfully through its valley, for the first time since spring of 2012:

Tablas Creek Valley

The lake, which the previous owners made by damming up the creek, which we have visions of tapping to help with our frost protection in the spring, is full for the first time since 2011, complete with ducks:

Lake Ramage

The drought is significantly ameliorated, according to the United States Drought Monitor. In fact, San Luis Obispo County is almost entirely free of drought, upgraded to the lowest "abnormally dry" classification, when at the beginning of the fall it was split between "severe drought", "extreme drought", and "exceptional drought":

Drought monitor changes - v2

So, are we truly out of the woods? I wouldn't go that far. There are still enormous pressures on groundwater. While out here aquifers recharge quickly, compared to most other California regions, it's still early to declare us free from worry. I know that we're going be as careful as ever in how we develop our vineyard. The water in the ground will certainly give the head-trained, dry-farmed vines we're planting this winter on our new property an easier go of it. And we're unlikely to need to irrigate even the close-spaced established blocks this growing season. That's all good. But this year's wet winter doesn't change the likelihood that our climate is going to be gradually getting warmer and drier with climate change.

While we're grateful for all this water, we've also been happy to have the sun in recent days. The ground is so saturated, and so soft, that until the last 10 days or so it's been impossible to get into the vineyard to prune. We're still behind, but making good progress, and feel confident that we'll get everything done before budbreak.  I like this panoramic shot, taken between two Mourvedre rows where our crew left off at lunchtime: pruned, uphill on the left, and as-yet-unpruned, downhill on the right. Click on it to expand:

Pruned Unpruned Panorama

About that budbreak. At this time last year, we'd already seen budbreak in several of our early-sprouting grape varieties. This year, we've been having frosty mornings for most of the last two weeks, which combined with the water in the soil, seem to be convincing the vines to stay dormant a bit longer.  It seems likely that we're going to be back to a more normal start time to the growing season -- late March or early April -- rather than the exceptionally early beginning that we've seen the past few years. That is comforting. But as to whether it insulates us from a damaging frost, we'll have to see.  We've been lucky to avoid frosts these last few years, despite the early onset to the growing season. But the last two years which produced bad frost events (2009 and 2011) both saw late budbreak, in April rather than March.

Is it possible that a cold spring, which leads to a late budbreak, may also put you more at risk for a post-budbreak frost? It doesn't seem far fetched. But we'll still take every dormant night that we can, and shorten the frost season as much as possible. Fingers crossed, please, everyone.


January 2017 is Tablas Creek's wettest month ever

Sometime around 6:30 this morning, as the third of three powerful storms pushed through the Paso Robles area, our rain gauge for January passed 16.32" for the month and displaced February 1998 as the wettest single month in Tablas Creek's history.  Our running total (with much of this storm still to pass, and 9 days left in January) is now 17.17", more than triple the normal average for January, our wettest month:

Screen Shot 2017-01-22 at 11.55.13 AM

For the year, we're at 23.88", just about at our 20-year average for the winter rainy season and about more than 90% of the way toward the 26" that old-timers quote as the long-term annual "normal" for our pocket of the Paso Robles Adelaida District. You can see, looking at the last 20 years, that we're still quite a ways from matching our wettest-ever rainy season, 2004-05:

Screen Shot 2017-01-22 at 12.25.48 PM

Of course, we're still only just past the midpoint of the normal winter rainy season. It seems like we'll get another inch or so in the aftermath of this storm, and February-June brings another 11.47" of rain on average.  That would put us up above 35" of rain, on par with the last two wet winters, 2009-10 and 2010-11.

Even with the recent rain, we've got a long way to go to climb out of the hole the last five years of drought has put us in. Between the winters of 2011/12 and 2015/16, we built up a deficit of more than 54" (compared to that 26" average).  So, it will take more than one wet winter to recover.  But between the reports of greatly increased capacity in our local reservoirs and the news that most of Northern California has been declared free of drought it's clear that the rain has made a measurable difference.

As for the vineyard, it's wet. Springs have sprouted in low-lying areas, and enough water has drained to cause Las Tablas Creek to flow during more than the immediate aftermath of a storm for the first time in four years.  You venture into the vineyard at peril of losing your footwear.

FullSizeRender-6

After this low pressure system passes through on Tuesday, we're forecast for a week or so of dry weather.  That's perfect.  It will allow the surface water to drain down into the limestone clay layers, and give the cover crop a week of sun.  And then the long-term forecast suggests a return to a wet pattern in early February.  That's perfect too.  At this point, we're feeling good about where we are.  Anything more at this point is gravy.


Spring Cleaning in the Vineyard: How Eliminating Surface Grasses Conserves Water

Over the course of about six weeks, the vineyard has gone from looking like:

Lush cover crop

To looking like:

Scruffy long view

This transformation takes place as the rainy season ends, and our focus shifts from encouraging a cover crop to hold the topsoil in place to making sure that the vines (rather than the cover crops) get the bulk of the water that is stored in the absorbent limestone-rich soils.  Think of each plant that's growing in a given plot of land as like a wick, with its roots delving into the soil for available moisture.  If we had overabundant water, we might want to leave some surface weeds to keep levels more reasonable.  Instead, in our California climate, eliminating competition from grasses and other surface plants is an essential part of our ability to dry farm.  Tilling in the cover crop also allows the insects and microorganisms in the soil to start breaking down the surface biomass accumulated during the winter growth into nutrients that the vines will draw from in the coming months.  Finally, the loosening of the soil creates an insulating layer at the surface that helps conserve the water deeper down.

The main tool we use to turn our cover crops under is the spader, shown in action below.  The row to the right has been mowed but not turned under, while the spader is chopping up the topsoil with a collection of tooth-like blades that penetrate deep into the topsoil:

Spader at work

The end result, when a whole block has been spaded, is a manicured surface from which weeds rarely re-sprout, like the head-trained Tannat block below:

Spaded area in Tannat

We're only about 30% done with turning the cover crop under, and the work will continue for another month. The one section that we have finished is Scruffy Hill, and it looks amazing.  Two shots follow, beginning with the fully leafed out Grenache block, looking down over the less-advanced Mourvedre vines below:

Scruffy Grenache vine

And a view that shows you a close-up of the soils. Tilling in the surface weeds allows you to see just how calcareous the soils are:

Scruffy soil view

Pretty soon, the whole vineyard will look like this, just in time for summer.


Harvesting under the stars

By: Lauren Phelps

I arrived at the vineyard today at 4:00 AM in the crisp morning air to photograph the "night harvest" of one of our last blocks of Mourvedre.  Our crew used only head-lamps and the lights from the tractors to harvest which was challenging to photograph and made for some very interesting and rewarding shots.  

Group Tractor Row

Row Pick

Toss_cube

I found our 17-person harvest crew deep in the vineyard at a newly planted block of head-trained, dry-farmed Mourvedre on the parcel we call Cross-hairs. This block was part of an experiment that we're excited about, using some very old-fashioned, deep-rooting rootstocks in high stress parts of the vineyard.

Head Trained Sunrise

This block of about 3 acres (there are also 3 acres of Grenache) was planted in 2013 and is now on its third harvest (in vineyard jargon, "third-leaf"), which is the first year you expect to pick any fruit, though only a small amount even in the best of situations, which 2015 has not been.  Given the drought and our low yields overall this harvest, we were pleased that the crew was able to pick about 3/4 of a ton. The quality looks excellent!

Leaf_cube

Just as the crew was finishing up the sun began to rise over the mountains.  What a treat!

Fruit In

This is our third year harvesting in the very early morning.  Night harvesting is great for the fruit; picking them at lower temperature protects them from oxidation and allows the fermentation to start more gradually and predictably.  It's also better for our harvest crew than picking in the heat of mid-day.

I absolutely love getting out into the vineyard for these photo excursions; I felt like a National Geographic photojournalist on-site documenting an ancient, rarely seen event.  And it's true, it is not very often that we get an in-depth look into the process of harvesting, especially in the dark.  I feel honored to witness and become a part the crew that is responsible for hand-harvesting the fruit that will soon become the next vintage of Tablas Creek wine.


Harvest 2015 update: just over 15% completed & yields are looking low

By: Lauren Phelps

In the cellar, things are in full-gear!

Sorting Tablas_Cube

According to veteran Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi harvest is already over 15% completed.  As of August 29th, we have worked with 65.82 tons of fruit.

Upright with Syrah_cube

The 1700 gallon French oak upright fermenters are all full fermenting Syrah for the 2015 Patelin de Tablas!

Harvest Sign First Estate_cube

Our first estate grapes were harvested on August 26th when we brought in about 3 tons of Viognier.  According to Viticulturist Levi Glenn, the estate Viognier yields appear down at least 50% due to the drought however, both acids and PH look great.

Mavis_cube

Levi's dog Mavis, vineyard dog extraordinaire, conducts a rigorous "lab test" of a bin of Viognier.

Although estate Viognier yields look low, Levi explains that "it's really more of a mixed bag.  Mourvedre and Roussanne both look a bit higher than normal".  In general, we're thrilled with the quality of fruit and a bit concerned since yields remind us of frost reduced years in 2001, 2009 and 2011.  We're waiting until we've harvested more from the estate to draw any firm conclusions.


Did 2.6" of rain in July really just happen?

Yesterday, we hosted a seminar on dry-farming.  In the rain.  In Paso Robles.  In July.

Levi lecturing

And it wasn't just a little rain, either.  As we were talking about how we've been working to plant increasing acres of vines without any irrigation infrastructure, and how we've been weaning even our established vines off of needing regular water, we were in the process of accumulating more rain -- seven times more rain -- than Paso Robles had received in any July day in its history.  In fact, we received four times more rain yesterday than Paso Robles has ever received in an entire month of July before.

Of course, July is the driest month of the year in Paso Robles, averaging less than 0.2" of rain for the month.  But residents of other parts of the country may not realize just how unusual summer rain is in the Central Coast of California.  Maybe a graph will help (from the useful site climate-data.org):

Climate-graph-paso

The unusual storm was caused by the remnants of Hurricane Dolores, which instead of remaining offshore or moving inland toward Phoenix (both more common paths for Pacific ex-hurricanes) wandered slowly and more or less directly north up California's coast, bringing unusually hot, moisture-laden air to parts of the state where humidity is almost totally foreign.  This moist, unstable air spurred a series of thunderstorms (themselves rare in this area) whose path took them directly over Paso Robles.  The town recorded 3.55", the highest total in the county and more than a quarter of the average annual rainfall the city can expect to receive.  It's also more than the town averages in any month during the year; for those of you who like me need a translation from the metric, 3.55" is more or less 90mm... about 10% more than Paso Robles receives on average in January, its wettest month.  We saw a little less rain out here than they did in town, but at 2.6" we still received more than we did all but two months (December and February) this past winter.

Given how much rain we received, and how fast it came down, you might wonder how the vineyard fared. It came through with flying colors. We rarely see much erosion here, due to the porosity of the clay-limestone bedrock, and we didn't see any in the vineyard. The little we saw was confined to a few vineyard tracks, where the occasional tractor traffic compresses the soils enough that water runs down rather than soaking in. From this afternoon:

Minor erosion

We don't anticipate any serious negative consequences from the rain. After a last round of showers and thunderstorms that are forecast to blow through this evening, it's supposed to dry out. It looks like we'll have a few sunny, breezy, relatively cool, low humidity days, and then it will warm up to normal for the season (highs in the 90s and lows in the 50s, with virtually no humidity).  This should serve to dry out the surface layer of the soil, and prevent too many weed seeds from germinating.  Plus, both the low humidity and the warm days will serve to prevent mildew from becoming a problem.

On the positive side, this is a time of year when the vines are nearly all under some stress.  A dose of rain now helps alleviate this stress, and gives the vines the energy to make their final push toward ripeness.  And the amount of rain that we received was enough to get through the topsoil and replenish the moisture in at least the upper layers of the calcareous bedrock, which will provide a reservoir for the vines over the next couple of months.  You can see how rich and soft the soils look after the rain, and also how void of erosion channels they are even near the bottom of a steep hillside:

Brown dirt

If the rain had come a month later, with some grapes nearly ripe, we would worry that the water might dilute the flavors and even cause grapes to swell and split.  But now, with veraison barely started, that's not a risk.

It's worth remembering that most other wine regions, including the Rhone, see summer rain.  The same chart as above, for Chateauneuf-du-Pape, shows that while rain is a bit less common in the summer than in other seasons, it's hardly rare:

Avg rainfall CdP

So, we'll enjoy the unusual moisture in the air, and feel thankful that we got it now and not during harvest.  If this is a precursor to what is sounding likely to be a strong el nino winter, so much the better.  I'll leave you with one final photo, taken in the middle of yesterday's rain, and looking more like an impressionist painting than a summer Paso Robles landscape:

Mist and rain


Dry Farming in California's Drought, Part 3: How We Got Here (and Where We Go Next)

I was struck by a quote from Tegan Passalaqua, the winemaker at Turley, in a recent article on JancisRobinson.com.  In an interview with Alder Yarrow, Tegan said "In a Mediterranean climate like we have, vertical shoot positioning and 3 by 6 vineyard spacing is basically farming hydroponically".

Hydroponic farming, with its overtones of bland supermarket tomatoes, seems an unlikely candidate to provide the intensity and ripeness that a winemaker would expect from California.  But in its essence, that the farmer is providing everything that a plant needs to bear fruit, I don't think he's far off.  It's worth taking a few moments to understand how grapevines came to be so widely irrigated in California.  In the first part of this 3 part series, I looked at how our understanding of California's climate dictated changes versus what had been done in the Mediterranean.  In the second part, I detailed how we have been farming our vineyard since the beginning to wean it off of irrigation, and what changes we've made in recent years to adjust to the likelihood of a drier future.  In this third part, I will explore how viticulture evolved in California to rely so heavily on irrigation.  If you missed the earlier parts, this article will make more sense after you've read them.

According to Jancis Robinson1, wine grapes were likely first domesticated from their wild progenitors somewhere near where modern-day Armenia, eastern Turkey, and north-western Iran meet, sometime before 4000 BC.  That area is a relatively arid climate, averaging around 400mm of rainfall per year (about 16 inches).  There, grapevines, along with similarly rugged crops like olive trees, were planted on dry, rocky hillsides where the more useful grain and vegetable crops couldn't survive.  This took advantage of grapevines' genetic predisposition to search out scarce water sources, delving dozens of feet deep if necessary.

By 2000 BC, wine grapes had been brought to areas around the eastern Mediterranean, including Egypt, Mesopotamia, southern Greece, Crete and the southern Balkans.  Expansion to areas north and west came over the next two millennia, brought by the exploring and colonizing Phoenicians, Greeks, and (later) Romans.  

High quality winemaking requires the concentration of flavors, achieved through stress on the grapevines and the maturity of fruit.  This happens naturally in the hot, dry climates where grapevines evolved.  But as viniculture moved north through Europe, into climates cooler and wetter than where wine grapes originated, the grapevines faced different challenges. Instead of not enough water, grapevines were challenged with too much water, threatening to dilute flavors.  And the cooler climes meant that lack of ripeness was a significant threat.  The solution to both these problems came in a new way of planting: spacing vines much more closely, so they competed against each other for the available water, and reducing the yield per vine so that the clusters ripened more rapidly.  For contrast, look at the differences in the old world.  An old vineyard in a warm Mediterranean climate (in the example below, Priorat, taken as a still from a promotional video on the Priorat DOQ Web site) might see grapevines three meters apart or more from their nearest neighbors (500 vines per acre, or less):

Priorat

By contrast, a Burgundian vigneron in search of maximum concentration and character might plant grapevines as close together as one meter by one meter (over 4000 vines per acre), and reduce yields per vine from 20-30 clusters per vine to just 3 or 4.  The example below (from Wikimedia Commons) is of a vineyard near Gevrey-Chambertin, in Burgundy, where vines are so close together a tiny tractor can barely fit:

Vineyards_near_Gevrey-Chambertin_(7309858246)

The net result is a can be a greater yield in tons per acre, with increased intensity and a better chance of getting the grapes ripe before the first frost.

It is perhaps useful to think of a grapevine as a small machine, whose roots act as pumps to wick water and nutrients out of the ground.  A vine's leaves absorb solar energy to power this machine. The water that is pulled from the ground is used during photosynthesis as the vine respires through the pores of the leaves, and is also trapped in the plant's tissues and fruit.  Planting more vines into a given plot of land requires more water for photosynthesis to be successful.  If there is enough (or too much) water, this extra density is beneficial and even important.  If there is not enough water, this extra density requires more irrigation to keep photosynthesis going.  And if irrigation becomes a major source of water for the vines, they change their root system to better capture that water source, growing more rootmass under the irrigation drips and less exploring deeper. 

So, is California's climate more like that of the Mediterranean, or more like that of Burgundy?  It depends on what you look at.  In terms of temperatures, you can find both, as evidenced by the success California's winemaking community has had with a a wide range of grapes, from the cool-loving Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir (with origins in the north of France) to the late-ripening Grenache and Mourvedre (with origins in the hot, dry Spanish plateau).  But in terms of rainfall, it should be clear that except for perhaps in extreme north and coastal regions, our total precipitation more resembles the warmer, drier Mediterranean. In fact, many parts of California receive significantly less annual rainfall than the classic Mediterranean climate.  Relatively arid areas like Priorat receive more rainfall than most of the Central Coast, and the rainfall distribution in Paso Robles actually looks more like the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon than it does like Priorat, let alone anywhere in France.  The fact that we receive nearly all our precipitation in the six-month period between November and April only adds to the stress on the vines, and the need for planning if we're going to try to grow grapes without having them dependent upon regular irrigation.

You might wonder why plantings of grapevines in California look more like those in Northern Europe than they do like those of the Mediterranean.  That they do is a relatively recent phenomenon.  A paper on vine spacing presented to the American Society for Enology and Viticulture (ASEV) in 1999 by two winemakers from Robert Mondavi Winery makes for fascinating reading.  Before the late 1980's, most vineyards in California were planted at around 450 vines per acre.  The first large-scale (35 acre) high-density (2170 vines/acre) planting came in Oakville in 1985.  Since then, the paradigm has shifted rapidly, as winemakers found that they could translate the higher density into earlier-ripening, more reliably yielding crops of good intensity.

The downside? It hasn't seemed like there was much of one. More reliable yields, more reliable ripening, and increased intensity all seem like a good thing.  If I find that many of the wines that come from high-density irrigated plantings have a sameness, a fruit-driven thickness and relative lack of soil expression, this doesn't seem to be a complaint shared by many.  And separating out the preference for increasingly ripe flavors that developed over a similar timeframe is difficult (many connoisseurs of Bordeaux, where irrigation is prohibited, have described a similar development over the last two decades). But these higher-density crops can only survive in most parts of California through the regular application of irrigation.  When that irrigation water was cheaply and easily available, the fact that our natural rainfall distribution more resembles the Eastern Mediterranean than Burgundy or Bordeaux didn't seem to matter much. From an environmental standpoint, planting an irrigated vineyard was often a responsible choice for a farmer, as the high efficiency of drip irrigation and the relatively little water that grapevines need compared to a crop like alfalfa offered sustainability in both resource use and economics. But with all of California's agricultural communities engaging in a new level of soul-searching after four years of drought, it's clear to me that the calculus is changing.

Perhaps the solution for a drier future begins with a look at the past.  The old vineyards planted by immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries, many of which survived decades of neglect during prohibition and continue to produce a century later, were planted with the densities common to the warm Mediterranean climates (from where, of course, most of the settlers came).  Given our success in recent years replicating these older planting styles, I would hope that one benefit to come out of our current drought will be a renewed interest in low density plantings on deep-rooting rootstocks, requiring at most a fraction of the water of "modern" vineyards. That the wines have turned out to be so good is icing on the cake. 

It doesn't get more sustainable than that.

Footnotes
1 Jancis Robinson's "Wine Grapes" (Penguin Books, 2012) is an incredible resource for anyone interested in the history or characteristics of different grape varieties.


A Vertical Tasting of En Gobelet, 2007-2013

When we first made En Gobelet in 2007, it was driven by our feeling that the dry-farmed lots we tasted in our annual blind tastings shared a distinctive character, different from our trellised lots.  In my blog post from 2009 announcing the first vintage, I talked about these dry-farmed lots:

"they seem to share an elegance and a complexity which is different from what we see in the rest of the vineyard. Perhaps it's the areas where they are planted (generally lower-lying, deeper-soil areas). Perhaps it's the age of the vines and a comparative lack of brute power. But, whatever the reason, we believe that these lots show our terroir in a unique and powerful way."

The wine has always been a blend primarily of Grenache and Mourvedre, with a touch of Tannat to cut the perception of sweetness that both the primary grapes can have.  When, starting with the 2010 vintage, we got some head-trained Syrah and Counoise in production, we added those too.  Our largest head-trained block, from which most of our recent vintages have come, is called Scruffy Hill, and we've been interested in exploring how this might fare as a block-designate, so between 2010 and 2013 the core of the En Gobelet was a co-fermented lot from Scruffy Hill, with selective additions from elsewhere on the property.

While it started as a wine we made because we thought we tasted something interesting in the lots, with our increasing focus on dry farming and our plans to plant all 55 acres on our new property dry-farmed, we've also come to see our En Gobelet as an indication of our future.  In celebration, we decided to look back today at the six vintages of En Gobelet we've bottled so far, and I thought it would be fun to share my notes.  The lineup:

En Gobelets

  • 2007 En Gobelet (48% Mourvedre, 47% Grenache, 5% Tannat): The nose is rich, meaty, and still primary, with lots of ripe red fruit and an appealing touch of mint. A touch of alcohol showed at the (nearly room) temperature at which we tasted it.  A slightly caramelized tone to the sweetness of the fruit is the only sign of age. On the palate, it is rich, lush and chocolaty, brought back to earth with firm tannins like coffee grounds at the end of a Turkish coffee. There's a great texture to the finish, with a powdered sugar character to the tannins and lingering flavors of dark plum.
  • [Note that we didn't make an En Gobelet in 2008 because we didn't taste enough distinction between the dry-farmed, head-trained lots and the rest of the cellar.]
  • 2009 En Gobelet (56% Mourvedre, 23% Tannat, 21% Grenache): A remarkably chalky nose, with some menthol and kirsch. On the palate, an initial impression of balsamic-marinated cherries is quickly overtaken by some massive tannins.  The finish is actually gentler than it was in the back-palate, with a creamy minerality and flavors of milk chocolate.  Still very, very young,
  • 2010 En Gobelet (37% Grenache, 28% Mourvedre, 13% Syrah, 12% Counoise, 10% Tannat): Chelsea's comment, which I agreed with completely, was that this wine "smelled more like Tablas Creek" than the previous two vintages.  There was more fruit in evidence in the nose -- blueberries, we thought -- and a minty, cool, pine forest savoriness characteristic of the 2010 vintage.  The mouth is vibrant with flavors of plum skin, juniper, a creamy, chalky texture and a little saltiness coming out on the finish.  This is really good, and going to get better.  Patience.
  • 2011 En Gobelet (29% Mourvedre, 27% Grenache, 26% Tannat, 18% Syrah): The most appealing nose yet, dark with soy marinade, wild strawberry, and roasted meat.  The least rustic of the noses, surprising since we'd attributed that character to the Tannat, and at 26% it is the most Tannat we've ever had in the wine.  The mouth is defined by its texture more than its flavors: creamy, chalky, savory and salty.  The flavors of loam and new leather linger on the finish.  My favorite wine of the tasting, for right now, and it's clearly got a long, interesting life ahead.
  • 2012 En Gobelet (63% Grenache, 12% Mourvedre, 11% Syrah, 8% Counoise, 6% Tannat): Notably lighter in color, unsurprising given the predominance of Grenache in 2012.  It smells like Grenache, too, with red cherry, watermelon rind, orange peel and baking spices. There's something deeper lurking on the nose, too, with time: like a clove-studded orange and baker's chocolate. The mouth is full of high-toned fruit, lots of fresh strawberry, then firming up and turning darker on the finish, with a salty marinade character and something leafy. Not quite minty.  Maybe shiso? Complex and cohesive, if still young.
  • 2013 En Gobelet (34% Grenache, 31% Mourvedre, 19% Syrah, 11% Counoise, 5% Tannat): Just bottled a few weeks ago, and the nose still shows some shyness from that, but the aromas of mint, cherry, strawberry and soy come out with time. The mouth is richer than the 2012, but similarly cohesive and complex, with red fruit held in check by something herby.  Maybe thyme? Lots of pepper, too, which Chelsea nailed as pink peppercorn.  Nice acids and some youthful tannins.  Obviously young, but going to a good place.  Will go out this fall to wine club members.

A few concluding thoughts:

We preferred the more recent vintages to the first couple of years.  There are several reasons why this might be the case.  The vines were older, with deeper roots.  Starting in 2010 we were sourcing the majority of the wine from the hillside vineyards of Scruffy hill rather than the low-lying areas that had formerly been rootstock fields.  The more recent vintages include Syrah and (in most cases) Counoise, which add a coolness and a vibrancy to the wines.  But in tasting the wines now, I think it might be ripeness as much as any of the other factors.  The first two vintages come across as a little over the top. At 15% and 14.5% alcohol respectively, the 2007 and 2009 were higher in alcohol than the 2011 (13.9%), 2012 (14.2%) and 2013 (14.0%).  The relative restraint of the recent vintages seems to play well with the dark savoriness of the wine.  Of course, the 2010, which was also 14.5%, tastes more like the later vintages than the earlier ones.

Despite the evolution in style and the often-varied compositions, there were recognizable currents that ran through all the wines.  The wines were all more savory than fruity, perhaps because of the Tannat component.  They all had a chalky texture and a salty finish, perhaps because of the necessarily deep root systems of all dry-farmed vines.  And they all felt like they could go out another decade easily, still fresh and vibrant even at the first vintages.

If this is what our future looks like, I'll take it.


Dry-Farming in California's Drought, Part 2: Looking Forward to the Past

In the first part of this 3-part series on farming in California's drought, I looked at how our climate here in California differs in crucial ways from that in the Mediterranean, and what lessons we took from these differences in how we would choose to farm.  In this second part, I pick the story back up with how we planted and trained our vines in the early days to allow us to dry-farm them now, and what changes we've made in recent years as we adjust to what is likely to be a drier future.  The third part is more historical, looking at how grapevines -- which should be one of the easier crops to dry-farm -- came to be so widely irrigated in California.  If you missed Part 1, go read it now.  OK, welcome back.

In the Beginning

When we began planting, we used a hybrid of the planting methods of modern California and the traditional Rhone.  At Beaucastel, vines are planted head-trained but closely spaced on their relatively flat terrain.  They cultivate these vineyards using tall over-the-vines tractors as the spacing (roughly 1.5 meters square) doesn't allow tractors to pass in-between.  On our steep hillsides, these tractors wouldn't work, so we matched the overall vine density, but moved the vines into rows, planting more closely within the rows (3 feet) and spacing the rows either 8 feet or 10 feet apart, depending on our terrain. We achieve a similar vine density at around 1600-1800 vines per acre, but can cultivate mechanically, essential for our organic techniques:

Tournesol Tractor

Our decision to plant at similar density to Beaucastel was grounded in our initial belief that in our broadly similar environment we should use the techniques that they had developed over the years as a starting point, and then learn from our experiences here and adjust gradually over time.  

The first choice we needed to make was what rootstocks to use. Wine grapes need to be grafted onto rootstocks to be resistant to the root parasite phylloxera.  These rootstocks are descended from different species of American wild grapes, and have inherited differences in level of vigor, rooting configuration, tolerance for soil chemistry, and affinity for various varietals from their progenitors. [For a good technical overview of rootstock science, see this piece in Wines&Vines.]  

Modern fashion in relatively water-rich areas (including Napa Valley, which has a fairly stable water table on the valley floor) suggests the use of low-vigor, shallow-rooting rootstocks, to keep the vines from growing too much canopy and from setting high quantities of low-intensity fruit.  But it was clear to us that we should focus instead on higher-vigor, deeper rooting rootstocks because of the high-stress nature of our climate and topography.  We chose deep-rooting, relatively high-vigor rootstocks to graft to (principally 110R and 1103P).

Our next decision was if and how to irrigate the blocks we would be planting. After speaking to local growers, it became clear to us that in order to get our young vines through the dry summer months, we would need to be able to irrigate at least in the early years.  Grapevine roots grow down fairly rapidly, about a foot and a half per year when the vines are young, slowing as they age.  To determine the length of time we'd need to supplement, we did some trench cuts in the vineyard, digging down a dozen feet through the topsoil and the top layers of limestone, to see where the water was by late summer.  These showed that even with the water-holding capabilities of our calcium-rich soils, we needed to dig down 6-8 feet to find layers that still had moisture in September.  So, we figured we would need to irrigate for the first five or so years, if all went well, and if we were able to encourage the deep root growth that would eventually allow us to get the bulk of the root mass down where water could be found.

Our technique was infrequent but deep irrigation.  This should be intuitive.  Grapevine roots grow where water is present.  If you water frequently but shallowly, roots continue to grow near the surface, where water can be found.  If the only water to be found is deep, roots grow deep.  Watering infrequently (twice per summer, and eventually only once) but deeply causes the soil to dry out from the top down in between waterings, and encourages root growth in the deeper areas that have moisture.

It didn't work as smoothly as we had originally hoped.  We lost so many vines to gopher predation that we had to replant in some cases as much as 25% of our blocks with young vines.  These vines needed to be irrigated when they were young, and even longer, as they grew more slowly due to competition from the older vines nearby.  It wasn't until the wet years of 2005 and 2006 that we felt able to wean our established blocks entirely from supplemental irrigation, but when we did, we were rewarded by consecutive great vintages.

Now, we feel that our older blocks are able to go not just through a normal rainfall winter without needing to be supplemented, but can go one year into a drought cycle (as in the 2012 vintage) without needing additional water.  When we get multiple years into a drought, as we have been since 2013, we are able to supplement, again using the infrequent but deep watering that will discourage the vines from the bad habits of excessive shallow root growth.  We supplemented most blocks once in 2013 and twice during the 2014 vintage, and feel that these are going to be two of our greatest vintages ever.

Recent Adjustments

In addition to the continuing work that we've done easing our original plantings toward water self-sufficiency, the last decade has seen us look to even older models to plant vineyard in ways that won't need to be supplemented even in droughts.  As early as 2000, we had planted some of our low-lying blocks in relatively deep soils head-trained, dry-farmed.  These areas most resembled, to our minds, the terrain at Beaucastel.  We also looked at old vineyards in the Paso Robles area, many of which date back to the years before Prohibition.  These vines, mostly Zinfandel, were head-trained and widely spaced, and had made it nearly a century still in high quality production.  Our first block that we planted in this manner was the small block of Mourvedre near our front entrance, just to the east of where our tasting room is currently located.  We spaced the vines 8 feet apart in a square pattern (a density of 680 vines per acre).  A recent view of this block (with the vines and their solar panel backdrop) shows how well established they've become in the last 15 years:

Mourvedre with solar panels behind

The success of these never-irrigated vines encouraged us to plant most of our former rootstock fields in this manner between 2003 and 2005.  Though these worked well too, we weren't sure yet whether we could translate these successes to hillside blocks with less topsoil and less water.  In the end, it was the logistical challenge of getting well water pumped to our one block on the south (opposite) side of Tablas Creek that pushed us to give it a shot.  We planted that thirteen-acre block, which we call Scruffy Hill, head-trained and dry-farmed in 2006 and 2007. Scruffy Hill presented some new challenges.  It was (is) one of our most rugged blocks, on a very steep slope, with at the top just a foot or so of topsoil.  Cultivation was also going to be a problem, with slopes as steep as 35% making it unsafe to cultivate across the hills, so after speaking with locals we decided on a 12 foot by 12 foot diamond pattern, reducing the vine density to about 340 vines per acre and creating two mostly-vertical avenues we could use to cross-cultivate safely.  We weren't comfortable leaving these vines to fend for themselves entirely, so we bought several 5-gallon plastic buckets, drilled a small hole in the bottom of each, and then used our water truck to give each vine a single bucket of water in the late summer in years one and two. Scruffy hill is now thriving:

Scruffy Hill 2

We've also been experimenting with our rootstocks. The rootstocks that we have used, from the beginning, have needed to be relatively high in vigor and tolerant of Calcium.  This has meant that we use predominantly 1103-P and 110-R.  In recent years, we've planted a few blocks of Grenache on the famously deep-rooting St. George rootstock, the standard in California before irrigation, though in more recent decades largely replaced by lower-vigor, more shallow-rooted crosses.  We are hopeful that these experiments will allow us to develop healthier, more vigorous vineyards without needing supplemental irrigation.

The Upshot: Forward to the Past

All told, in the last decade we've planted over 30 acres head-trained, dry-farmed, in the manner vineyards would have been planted (per force) a century ago.  And while it may not be intuitive, in our recent dry years, the vines in these blocks have shown less signs of stress, and the production from these blocks has declined less, than in our trellised blocks.  But perhaps it shouldn't be so surprising that 340 vines in a dry-farmed acre can thrive with the roughly 15 inches of rain we've received each of the last four winters, while the 1800 vines planted in a trellised acre really need something closer to the 28 inches that is our average.  While a 24-hour irrigation session can keep them going through a dry summer, it's still not making up the difference between a normal rainfall winter and what we've averaged during our drought.

Would we make the same commitment to dry-farming if we needed 4 or more tons per acre off of our vineyard?  Perhaps not.  Our dry-farmed blocks tend to produce between 2 and 2.5 tons per acre, even in the most productive years. But given that we're only aiming for between 2.5 and 3 tons per acre even from our trellised blocks, we're not sacrificing much production.  And given how much less expensive it is to plant, prune, cultivate and thin 340 vines per acre than it is to do the same work on 1800, it may not be costing us more per pound of fruit even with the lower yields.

Even more important, the quality of the wine lots from these dry-farmed vines has been among the best in the cellar both of the last two years. Take into account that these are still among our youngest blocks and you can see why we feel it's a win-win situation for us, and why we're planning to plant our entire new parcel -- all 55 acres -- this way over the next decade.

So, if we're so happy with these old-fashioned techniques, how did the paradigm in California become so dependent on irrigation?  I explore the history in part 3.